Steam tunnels of New York
December 22, 2014 5:47 PM   Subscribe

105 miles of steam pipes (NYT video) run beneath the streets of New York, delivering steam to 2,000 buildings for heating, cooling, and other purposes. The system is maintained by Con Edison (1 2 3).

See also: 'Underground New York' on NPR.
Some previous: 1 2 3 4 5
posted by carter (31 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
As an owner of a steam-heated house, I have some serious respect for the people that keep this system operating. I couldn't imagine dealing with the high capacity, high pressure stuff that they're running. My steam system runs on less than 4 oz of pressure and is by far the most finicky system of any type that I've ever dealt with, and I'm a working industrial engineer. Something as simple as a sag in a pipe or some missing insulation can create a frightening banging called water hammer. . If you let too much water sit in the wrong places, the thing could literally tear itself apart given enough time. This has happened to the NYC system at least once. Even a slight film of oil on the boiler water can set off such a racket that you'd think the house was overrun by poltergeists.

That said, when it works right, it's the most gloriously comfortable heat you've ever felt.
posted by TrialByMedia at 6:13 PM on December 22, 2014 [9 favorites]


After watching the video and reading up on the steam explosions and attendant deaths, I wonder how the safety of the steam system compares to the electricity running parallel. I know that underground electrical fires happen too, but I couldn't find anything comparable.
posted by ddbeck at 6:37 PM on December 22, 2014


My steam system runs on less than 4 oz of pressure
This unit of measurement was distressing enough to end ten years of daily lurking on Metafilter. GISing it, there are apparently pressure gauges out there with just the word "ounces" on them.
posted by groda at 6:39 PM on December 22, 2014 [30 favorites]


Steam power predates your fancy-pants mathematically rigorous system of measurements.
posted by ryanrs at 6:46 PM on December 22, 2014 [4 favorites]


Ounces per square inch, to fill in the blanks.

It also has an "inches of water column" scale that will only make sense if you own a steam system.
posted by TrialByMedia at 6:49 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Steam heat definitely scares me. Our house has a hundred+ year old hot water radiator system that works so much better than forced hot air but the idea of have pressurized steam in the walls scares me.
posted by octothorpe at 6:55 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


I had no idea this was a thing until my kids got a book about New York City utilities, with a section on steam.

There's a whole union that grew out of the guys who serviced these, the steamfitters or pipefitters, who deal with high-pressure lines -- that today can include chemicals, fuel, and high-pressure water, as well as steam, and they do a lot of their work in industrial settings. Plumbers handle low-pressure lines like water and sewer and residential gas. Steamfitting is highly skilled labor, and very dangerous when the systems are live because of the high pressure.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:00 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Welcome, groda!
posted by carter at 7:00 PM on December 22, 2014


There is a similar but smaller system in place in Seattle, which supplies 175 businesses in downtown and First Hill, including the big hospitals and the Seattle Art Museum and Central Library from two plants at either end of downtown.

When I was a toddler, I fell and burned my tummy on one of the hot manhole covers crossing the street, causing a scar which is just barely still visible today.
posted by Fnarf at 7:01 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


Steam heat definitely scares me.

You can blow harder than 4 oz/sqin.
posted by ryanrs at 7:03 PM on December 22, 2014


House systems are designed to work at 1.5 psi or less.

When they tried high pressure in the 19th century, houses and apartment buildings had a nasty habit of exploding.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:04 PM on December 22, 2014


ryanrs: "Steam heat definitely scares me.

You can blow harder than 4 oz/sqin.
"

I didn't say it was a rational fear.
posted by octothorpe at 7:08 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


inches or cm of water column is pretty common all over, no? Not in SI, but used all over.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 7:23 PM on December 22, 2014


It also has an "inches of water column" scale that will only make sense if you own a steam system.
Oh, in H2O is familiar alright. In the US, a steam turbine might measure its pressure at the inlet in psi, but in in H2O at the outlet. Also, m H2O is very common in the rest of the world, and very convenient.
posted by groda at 7:30 PM on December 22, 2014


Interesting. I guess I've only seen it in the context of my own system, where it tells you exactly how far you're backing water up into the returns at any given pressure.
posted by TrialByMedia at 7:34 PM on December 22, 2014


Even San Francisco has a small steam system in the Financial District. Nowhere near as big as the NYC system, which covers the better part of Manhattan.

My freshman year of college in a rather old dorm, I had a steam radiator directly next to my bed. The valve was broken and it took a large number of attempts for maintenance to get it fixed. In the meantime, I'd wake in the middle of the night to find that my rather tiny dorm room was over 90ºF. Hot plates were, naturally, forbidden, but that radiator would have made for a pretty good substitute.
posted by zachlipton at 7:45 PM on December 22, 2014 [1 favorite]


Not just for big cities, Hibbing, MN with a population around 16,000 has a municipal steam system.
posted by Jumpin Jack Flash at 8:32 PM on December 22, 2014 [2 favorites]


inches or cm of water column is pretty common all over, no? Not in SI, but used all over.

inches of mercury is the standard for atmospheric pressure in the US (and also for [old?] car vacuum systems, as I learned when replacing the choke pull-off in my granpa's old Caprice).
posted by dirigibleman at 8:50 PM on December 22, 2014


What does it say that I thought this was about, you know, Steam?
posted by sneebler at 9:03 PM on December 22, 2014


We've got steam radiators in our house. When we were trying to sell it a few months ago, some prospective buyers were turned off. I though, "Just as well; if you don't know how awesome steam can be..."

Ours is a one-pipe system. The boiler creates steam, which travels up the upper part of the pipes to the radiators. THe steam condenses to liquid water, which then travels down the lower part of the same pipes. Pretty ingenious. And man, it's like having a fireplace in every room - and none of that hot-cold-hot-cold cycling you get from a forced-air system.
posted by notsnot at 9:07 PM on December 22, 2014


I've lived in some houses with steam heat and they definitely do feel 'warmer' than forced air or even baseboard hot-water radiator houses. I don't really understand why that is, though. Do domestic boilers typically just put out more heat (in other words, use more energy) than typical forced air or hot water systems? Or is it just something psychological about having the heat come from a single big cast iron radiator in each room, as radiant heat instead of convection? It's strange.

I don't know if I'll ever have a steam-heated house, though, since they aren't especially compatible with air conditioning, and I'm not especially compatible with a lack thereof. But man, they are pretty elegant systems for heating a house.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:24 PM on December 22, 2014


What does it say that I thought this was about, you know, Steam?

I heard once that there was a way to control all the steam, and that all you needed was a valve.
posted by Chutzler at 11:10 PM on December 22, 2014


The miserable Brooklyn hovel I lived in had no heat for as long as two days during the coldest winter in decades. The clanking and hissing when the steam came back on remains one of the most comforting sounds I can imagine to this day.
posted by El Mariachi at 12:51 AM on December 23, 2014


Or is it just something psychological about having the heat come from a single big cast iron radiator in each room, as radiant heat instead of convection?

It isn't just psychological, there's a substantial difference in the physics of the situation. I've spent lots of time in a house with both a large fireplace and forced-air heating. Radiant heat from a large surface area keeps you a lot warmer for the same air temperature. It radiates out and warms up the walls more than the air as well, making the infrared environment warmer all around. There's a wall thermometer not too far from the fire, and when the fire is on and it reads 17 C, to me it feels roughly as warm in that room as when it's not and the temperature reads 20 C.
posted by sfenders at 3:47 AM on December 23, 2014 [2 favorites]


The university I attended was criss-crossed with steam tunnels, which made for excellent commuting between building in inclement weather, as well as for general exploring.

There were caches of old Civil Defense supplies stored in dedicated rooms down there. Big containers of hard candy, survival biscuits, medical instruments, huge bottles of 1960's-era phenobarbital, and, of course, the ubiquitous water barrels, which make for perfect modern-day trash cans.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:32 AM on December 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


Not steam, but villages in Europe will sometimes have a district heating system, like Flachau in Austria.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:00 AM on December 23, 2014


I know about these steam pipes well - one of them blew me up once (I'm the musician wearing a red tie...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:27 AM on December 23, 2014


“Lord, Thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream,
An', taught by time, I tak' it so - exceptin' always Steam.”

M’Andrews Hymn, Kipling
posted by SPrintF at 4:25 PM on December 23, 2014


Tulsa also has a (small) steam and chilled water system serving the downtown area. The waste heat is used to generate electricity, so it's even relatively efficient. Central steam and chilled water is far more efficient than each individual building having their own plant anyway to begin with, so it's particularly nice in that context.
posted by wierdo at 5:25 PM on December 23, 2014


huge bottles of 1960's-era phenobarbital

That would have made my university experience significantly less stressful. And productive.
posted by The Zeroth Law at 5:25 PM on December 23, 2014


This unit of measurement was distressing enough to end ten years of daily lurking on Metafilter.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:33 AM on December 24, 2014


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